Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in May urged the Trump administration to rescind millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funds that Harris County planned to use for mail-in ballots, as Republican state leaders and Democratic local officials were sparring over whether and how to expand voting options during the pandemic.

In a May 21 letter, Paxton alerted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin of Harris County’s “stated intent to use federal funding in violation of state law,” and asked him to “seek return of any amounts improperly spent on efforts to promote illegal mail-in voting.”

“Without implementing adequate protections against unlawful abuse of mail-in ballots, the Department could be cast in a position of involuntarily facilitating election fraud,” Paxton wrote. The letter was obtained and published this week by watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Experts say there is no evidence that mail-in ballots allow for widespread voter fraud, but Texas Republicans have long relied on that claim to justify keeping Texas’ mail-in balloting among the most restrictive systems in the country. Texans must be over 65, out of their home county, confined in jail but otherwise eligible or cite a disability in order to qualify for a mail-in ballot. Texas was one of just a few states that did not allow for no-excuse absentee voting this year during the coronavirus pandemic. After conducting a review, Harris County officials recently announced that the election this year was fair and secure.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo slammed Paxton for working to take essential federal dollars from the state’s largest city.

“Taking emergency relief funds from the people of Harris County would have knocked the floor out of our citizens’ ability to vote safely during a pandemic and an important national election,” said Hidalgo, a Democrat. “This attempt to cut off emergency federal funding for fellow Texans is indefensible.”

Houston, the state’s largest city and a critical Democratic stronghold within the red state, became the center of partisan battles over voting options during the pandemic after the Harris County Commissioners Court voted to spend tens of millions of dollars — more than ever before — to make voting easier and safer during the pandemic. Many of those efforts were backed by federal dollars doled out through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

Texas Republicans, with Paxton sometimes leading the charge, challenged a number of Harris County’s attempts to expand voting options, including suing local officials there to prevent them from sending applications for mail-in ballots to the county’s 2.4 million registered voters. The question over expanding access to mail-in ballots was a particularly partisan flashpoint. The all-Republican Texas Supreme Court ruled that voters could consider their own personal health circumstances, along with their vulnerability to COVID-19, to determine whether they had a disability that would qualify them for an absentee ballot under state law.

Spokespeople for the Department of the Treasury did not immediately respond to questions about whether they followed Paxton’s exhortation to vet Harris County’s spending plan.

Hidalgo also criticized Paxton for not being open about his attempt to sap funding from the state’s biggest Democratic stronghold. He did not announce the letter at the time it was sent.

“To do so in secret is truly a shame and I’m relieved this is now out in the open,” Hidalgo said.

Asked why the attorney general’s office never publicized the letter, a spokesperson, Kayleigh Date, said only that the letter “speaks for itself.

This article was initially published at TexasTribune

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